Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Other Alcott -- by Elise Hooper

Amy March, the spoiled, vain youngest sister who steals Jo's European trip and ends up with Laurie. What if that was your legacy to the world?

Or so the general public thinks today.

Like a good many readers of "Little Women," I never gave much thought to the real figure behind Amy March. That is, I knew May Alcott was a real person who provided some inspiration for Amy, but no one wrote much about her. It was much easier to learn about Louisa and her rather unusual parents than any of the sisters.

And I did know something about the Alcotts, after all I wrote and directed a 50 minute student adaptation of "Little Women" in my late teens, the premiere of which coincided with my college course on American Literature. "Little Women" still might never rank as one of my top ten favorite novels, but I know the story and the characters very well. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy came alive for me in a very tangible way while making that film (I played Meg), and I've continued to analyse and ponder these sisters with each new film adaptation I've been able to see.

But when I picked up Elise Hooper's engaging, well-researched novel, I was abashed to quickly discover that I knew almost nothing about May Alcott, and nearly all my assumptions were wrong.

The premise of the novel is the first sentence of this blog post--what would it be like to know that your sister portrayed you in such a fashion to the entire world? What would it be like to have everyone, as soon as they heard the name "Alcott", ask you how much of it was real, and assume that you were indeed vain and spoiled? 

May had the real gumption of the Alcotts, and determined not to let her sister's fame and public judgement overshadow her life. While early reviews praised the writing of "Little Women," they were harsh on the illustrations that May contributed to the publication. Rather than let this defeat her, May decided to seriously pursue a career as a professional artist. Unlike her fictional counterpart, she left behind a future as a society wife and chose long hours of study under drawing masters rather than a cushy engagement. It would take many years of hard work and perseverance, but eventually she would craft a legacy of her own...but would that legacy be at the expense of her relationship with her sister Louisa? You'll have to read the novel to find out!

Elise Hooper does a wonderful job of bringing Alcott's world to life. She understands how to tell an engaging story in a historical setting, paying respect to real historical figures while crafting an emotional narrative. There is a long historical note at the back of the book that goes into great detail regarding the true facts behind the story.

But the best part of the book for me is how Hooper brings the world of art study alive. I know something of art myself, both from personal study and from living with an art major. I was impressed with the accuracy and depth Hooper brought to her descriptions of artistic work. Although my own art background no doubt enriched my reading, I think it would be clear and appealing to readers of any level of artistic understanding, including novices.

My only qualm would be a slight regret that the book starts post "Little Women" publication and gives very little insight into the earlier years of the Alcott family. Bronson Alcott, the patriarch, was a transcendentalist who did not believe in accepting financial remuneration for work. At one point he founded a commune that the family lived on, and later they survived only due to the patronage of admirers. Alcott family friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, figures who impacted Louisa's later writing.

Indeed, this backstory is so intriguing that it would (and has) quite overwhelm May's own story, so I understand why Hooper chose to start at a later point in the timeline. However, I feel that some understanding of the Alcott family history is an important preamble to this novel, so I highly recommend at least skimming Bronson Alcott's Wikipedia page before picking up "The Other Alcott."

It's not often that I find such a great work of historical fiction that is well-written, fairly accurate, and reasonably clean. Late in the book there are a few mildly sensual scenes, but nothing too risque.

This is a perfect read to cozy up with as we head into chilly autumn. I highly recommend all fans of historical fiction, art, and/or "Little Women" go and pick up a copy today!

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